Michael Brown: Politicians should take long holidays. It does them (and us) a lot of good

'Mr Bush's enemies should be praying that the "Toxic Texan" spends even more time away from his office'
Click to follow
The Independent Online

As President Bush begins a month away from his White House duties, and the Washington Post criticises him for spending 42 per cent of the time since his inauguration on holiday, we await the inevitable silly season stories here attacking our own leaders for abandoning control of the ship of state in favour of the beaches.

But August is often the month which proves just how dispensable our political leaders are, and that more in the way of recesses should be the objective. On the basis that the more our politicians do, the worse they make the situation, masterly inactivity has much to commend it. Mr Bush's enemies, who have been relentless in their criticism of his domestic and international policies relating to the environment, defence and the Middle East, should be praying that the "Toxic Texan" spends even more time away from the Oval Office.

In Britain only the most churlish would deny the Prime Minister a decent break in Mexico, Chequers and the South of France. And only the ghoulish would want Kenneth Clarke and Iain Duncan Smith to add to the Tory Party's sense of disunity by giving themselves and us no respite from the party's civil war by breaking their two-week truce. Mr Clarke's commendable decision to go bird watching in Australia follows his absence, only six weeks ago, in Vietnam, from which he returned to launch a leadership campaign that stole a march on his unsuspecting rivals.

Mr Clarke's aides are concerned that Mr Duncan Smith, who is not abroad, is breaking the spirit of the truce and is slipping off to private meetings of Tories to garner votes while their hero is checking the whereabouts of kookaburras. They should not worry. Only if it was Michael Ancram still left in the frame should they have been concerned. Mr Ancram would, no doubt, have delighted in some kind of photo call on the "Glorious Twelfth" on the grouse moors. Harold Macmillan and Alec Douglas Home reinforced their image with Tories when they allowed the cameras to see them in their plus fours, and Mr Ancram would have garnered similar support from the old guard establishment if he could have invoked the image of his grandee forbears. Meanwhile, the other vanquished Tory pretenders have got out of town. Michael Portillo is on a tour of the West Coast of America, ending with attendance at performances of the Ring cycle in Seattle. David Davis, the dark horse candidate, is in Fiji snorkelling the coral reefs with his wife and 15-year-old son. But as he is staying with his brother-in-law who is the British High Commissioner, he will have access to the British media to keep him in touch with the latest Tory turmoil.

The truth is that our politicians have allowed themselves, because of the demands of a 24-hour-a-day media, to become too accessible and too familiar. Withdrawal from the scene and from the daily news bulletins does them – and us – much good. Last year, when Mr Blair took a decent break in Tuscany and France, his poll ratings soared. Only on his return did the fuel crisis and his panicky press-conference responses dent his commanding lead. Of course, the secret lies in being able to delegate day-to-day control of the machinery of government to a faithful trusty second-in-command. Here Mr Blair should be grateful to his deputy, John Prescott, who is now enjoying his fifth summer season minding the shop.

Much mirth went into making unfair fun of Mr Prescott's first August, in 1997, at the controls, but this was due, in part, to the complication of Peter Mandelson getting in on the act. Mr Prescott fell foul of the press with all the nonsense surrounding a harmless press call, involving a crab, which descended into silly season farce, when Mr Prescott named it "Peter".

All that has been forgotten and Mr Prescott has been exceptionally adept, during Mr Blair's absence, at handling Downing Street and Whitehall in recent years. Mr Prescott is fast slipping into the indispensable role that Willie Whitelaw carved for himself during the Thatcher years. Now he just gets on with the job, taking care not to fuel an appetite from journalists hungry to fill space when nothing is happening.

In fact, this has been an exceptionally good week for the Government. The unexpected bonus of acquiring a private hospital, worth £60m, for an exchequer cost of £27m, should warm the cockles of old Labour hearts at a time when rows are in the offing about the role of the private sector in delivering health care. Mr Prescott must be quietly amused that it was on his watch that headlines screamed of the Government "nationalising" a private hospital.

Talk of "minding the shop" reminds me of Jeremy Thorpe, the former leader of the Liberal Party, who once unwisely asked the sub-postmaster in Landkey in his North Devon constituency, whether he was going on vacation. "I am not, I can't," came back the uncompromising reply, with the challenge "unless you take over and run the store". Mr Thorpe was trapped, but asked the then Postmaster General, Tony Benn, whether this would be an office of profit under the Crown – thereby rendering himself ineligible to remain an MP. A deal was done whereby Mr Thorpe would be assisted by a retired postmaster, and so began one of the happiest holidays for a party leader.

Mr Thorpe's predecessor, William Gladstone, would think nothing of taking off two or three months but would plead that, while at his beloved Welsh castle, Hawarden, in between cutting down trees, "I think 10 hours a day has been a moderate estimate of my work there on public business".

Mr Blair should think himself lucky that, on his own return, he and Cherie will then prepare for the annual sojourn to Balmoral to stay with The Queen. Matters have improved, however, since Gladstone's time. In 1873, the summer recess commenced with a two-week stay with Queen Victoria at Balmoral. Even in those days, this was clearly an ordeal for Gladstone, not least from the perspective of the travel arrangements. "All next week will probably be consumed in getting me home." Escaping from Victoria by means of long walks, spanning two days and overnight in a local hotel, was Gladstone's principal means of leisure. "Thirty-three miles to Kingussie on foot ... Good hotel at Kingussie but sorely disturbed by rats." Mr Blair should think himself fortunate that he will only have to endure 24 hours.